Challenging Boundaries: Language Education at an Age of Uncertainty

As some of you will know, over the past year I have been working on an edited volume called Challenging Boundaries in Language Education. I am happy to say that the manuscript of the collection is nearly complete and about to be submitted, and I hope that we can manage a 2019 publication date. While these details are being sorted out, I’d like to share a few thoughts about why I think this volume is important, and why I think this age of ‘post-certainty’ is a good time for it to appear.

Language Education in Crisis

Challenging Boundaries in Language Education is a book written at a challenging age for language education, maybe even a time of crisis. Any form of language education is premised on a set of assumptions about the nature of language and learning. It is also underpinned by shared understandings concerning the optimal structure of learning sequences, classroom activities, curricula, and school systems. Most importantly, it presupposes what Henry Giroux called a ‘vision of the future’ (2011: 14), for which language education prepares learners. The problem is that most of these common beliefs (or ‘normative assumptions’) are being increasingly questioned.

The challenges to the normative assumptions about language education come from two main directions. First, language education is coming under sustained attack from neo-nationalist discourses. Depending on their origin, such discourses foreground demands for teaching and learning indigenous languages that had been invisibilised (e.g., 1, 2); or they seek to reaffirm the linguistic homogeneity of the nation-state (e.g., through the monolingual education policies in the US); or they reflect changing alliences in a global geopolitical restructuring (e.g., Syria’s decision to strengthen the teaching provision for Russian). These debates are reflected in language education in questions like, Which foreign languages should language policies prioritise? Is language / culture contact always desirable? Is linguistic diversity in the classroom a resource or a problem? 

Secondly, our certainties about language learning are eroded by an increasing awareness of the ‘presence of the irrational’ (MacNamara 2012: 478) in the language education process. We had always known that language learning is not a predictable, linear process, and the same applies to teacher education and the interplay between research, theory, and practice. But in the past we tended to treat this as an uncomfortable abnormality, a mistake which can be rectified once we figure out what we are doing wrong (maybe unsuccessful teaching, inefficient learning, or bad syllabus planning). We are now reaching a point where we must accept the futility of shoehorning practice into streamlined but unrealistic theoretical models, and that we need to theoretically account for the apparent paradoxes of our professional existence.

Taken together, these challenges to the foundational assumptions of language education create what I define, in Chapter 1 of the book, as an age of post-certainty. In the next section, I outline what I perceive as its main characteristics.

Caucasian man, seen from behind, looking at confusing set of diagrams and notices [Reflects confusion caused by loss of certainty in language education].
Many of the ‘certainties’ that underpinned language education are now being challenged. What are the implications of this ‘post-certainty condition’?
(Photo by Startup Stock Photos on Pexels.com)

Language Education at a Time of Post-Certainty

In Chapter 1 of Challenging Boundaries in Language Education (Conceptualizing & Problematizing Boundaries in Language Education), I suggest that three main hallmarks of the ‘post-certainty condition’ in language education include:

  1. a re-evaluation of the validity of our theoretical assumptions (the post-theoretical shift);
  2. a re-appraisal of the relation between ‘global truths’ and local contingency (the post-universalism shift); and
  3. a re-thinking of the assumptions associated with the global political structure (the post-sovereign shift).

Post-Theoretical Language Education

While the origins of language teaching were rooted in practice, in the latter part of the 20th century it became an ‘applied’ form of theory that was scientifically generated outside language education, in university-based linguistics and psychology labs. As Janez Skela points out in Chapter 2 of Challenging Boundaries, applied linguistics [and one might add psychology] ‘hijacked’ language education. In saying that language education is now entering a post-theoretical phase, I mean that this relationship is being renegotiated.

In the most obvious sense, language education appears to be moving away from the so-called ‘grand theories’ of the past, like behaviourism, humanism, or structural linguistics, to name a few. Importantly, this does not always signal a shift towards new theoretical paradigms, and the occassional attempts by academe-based scholars to carve out new niches for themselves are largely ignored by teaching practitioners. Rather, what seems to be happening is an increasingly vigorous questioning of the role of theory itself, and of its connection to language education.

Beyond structuralism We can see aspects of this changing attitude in the way linguistic knowledge is used in language education. For a long time, the dominant linguistic paradigm in langugage teaching has been a Saussurean view of language as a stable, abstract system, consisting of sounds, words, and rules that bound them. Implicit in this belief is the assumption that certain forms of language are correct, and others must be corrected. Such views are beginning to be replaced with post-structuralist accounts of language-in-context, and language education is becoming attuned to questions of identity (How does my way of using language connect to how I think about myself?), linguistic variation (Are British and American English the only ‘correct models’?), and power (Who gets to decide what is correct, and how is this decision made?).

Beyond positivism We can also see such changing attitudes in the way theory is used in general. This is particularly evident in the rejection of positivist thinking, which rests on the belief that specific actions will always lead to specific, predictable results in language learning. Building on this belief, it was assumed that if we could segment language teaching and learning into small, conceptually manageable problems, and studied these problems in isolation, we would somehow be able to re-construct a ‘big picture’; and this assumption has underpinned much research in language education (I’ve written more about this here, if you’re interested).

However, something that is becoming increasingly apparent as we move into post-positivism, is that there are important things happening in the interconnections between segments, or the interface between the phenomenon we study and its context: For instance, we can get a fuller picture of how pronunciation develops if we examine learner motivation, and we can develop a fuller picture of motivation by looking into classroom dynamics. Such realisations are fuelling a shift towards ecological perspectives of language education, such as the one described by Juup Stelma and Richard Fay in Chapter 4 of Challenging Boundaries. One valuable contribution of such perspectives is that they foreground the role of local context – more on this in the following section.

Post-Universalist Language Education

Much as there is a shift towards the post-theoretical in thinking about language education, there seems to be a shift in language teaching methodology, towards what can be defined as a post-universalist phase. Post-universalist thinking is driven by the belief that, whatever the commonalities that unite us a profession, the actual experience of language teaching and learning is lived out locally, and shaped by the ‘here-and-now’ of the immediate context.

Beyond cultural transmission One aspect of post-universalism is experienced in the way in which language education relates to culture. Typically, language education has tended to be connected to exposure to the culture of the target language (let’s set aside, for the moment, the massive problems of defining a unique, monolithic ‘national’ culture of the target language). This is a tendency that has been rightly criticised (e.g., by Braj Kumaravadivelu [2008], or more famously by Robert Phillipson [1992]). What we need to be doing more, and to a certain extent we are now beginning to get right, is view language education as a ‘third space’, which is distinct from both the native culture and the target culture, and where new, ‘hybrid’ identities can be shaped. In Challenging Boundaries, Chapter 13, by Lena Schwarzl, Eva Vetter and Miroslav Janík, describe such spaces in the superdiverse urban education landscapes of Vienna and Brno.

Beyond method Another way in which post-universalism is manifested is the emergence of forms of pedagogy that have variously been described as ‘post-method’ (Kumaravadivelu 2006) or ‘appropriate methodology’ (Holiday 1994). What this involves is the gradual abandonment of methods that are presumed to be effective in any pedagogical and cultural setting. This is happening because we are now aware that some methods may not only fail to take hold when transplanted from one educational setting to another, but they might actually cause disruption – a phenomenon metaphorically described by Adrian Holliday as ‘tissue rejection‘. In place of the uncritical application of such ‘globally effective’ methods, language education is increasingly seen as a process of meaningful synthesis of shared values and local educational traditions and practices.

Post-Sovereign Language Education

The third shift that I have associated with post-certainty in language education relates to ongoing geopolitical developments. The onset of what could be termed the post-sovereign shift involves the erosion of two political frameworks which have sustained language education in the last decades, namely colonialism and the nation-state.

Beyond the colonial power The colonial underpinnings of language education are described in detail Phillipson’s Linguistic Imperialism, and the impressive corpus of scholarship that it has inspired, agreeing with, challenging, or refining his thesis. The argument that is made there is dual: first, that the global teaching of western languages (particularly English) is the product of power asymmetries between the colonizing west (the “centre”) and the colonized “periphery”; and secondly, that the global teaching of such languages sustains this power disparity, even after the collapse of the colonial empires. The structures and ideologies of language education (e.g., methodological prescriptivism, the privileged status of ‘native speakers’, the structure of the publishing market) were easy to understand through this prism, but such certainties are being eroded in the wake of globalisation, urban superdiversity, and polylingualism. Several contributions in Challenging Boundaries, like Chapter 10 by Alia Moser and Petra Kletzenbauer, look at this shifting picture that globalisation is creating.

Beyond the nation-state The erosion of the colonial underpinnings of language education goes hand in hand with the destabilisation of the political structures of the nation-state, the other political pillar of language education. The nation-state is a product of an ideology that postulates the unity of ethnicity, language, and territory. This ideology ascribes to language policy the role of preserving the integrity of the state by silencing linguistic minorities, and maximising power by fostering connections with powerful allies. Such an ideology is increasingly hard to sustain, as subjugated minorities are adopting nationalist discourses of their own, but also migration is creating linguistic communities that are no longer territorialised. This, in turn creates the need for new pedagogical forms, that are more suitable for catering to the needs of transnationally mobile groups – Chapter 14 in Challenging Boundaries, by Kitsiou and her colleagues at the Hellenic Open University, outlines one example.

Blackboard on which "Think outside the box is written in chalk". Invites readers to challenge the post-certainty condition in language education.
The ‘post-certainty condition’ in language education does not just mean that now ‘anything goes’; it also means that now our decisions matter more.
(Photo by Kaboompics .com on Pexels.com)

What does this mean for Language Teaching and Learning?

A central theme of the book, which resonates in many chapters, is that language education does not just happen in a social or ideological vacuum. It connects with implicit beliefs, some of which are explicitly articulated, and many of which are implicit but nevertheless present. The post-certainty condition that I have described can potentially destablise teaching, for example, if assumptions that used to be shared between teachers, learners, and policy makers are replaced by diverging outlooks.

To me, this suggests that there is a need to take a critical look into the structures that bound our professional lives as language teachers and learners: to examine why things are the way they are, to envisage alternatives, and to compare our professional existence against the possible and desired futures. Many contributions in the Challenging Boundaries volume are intended to support such conceptual work, and I believe that this is helpful for creating shared spaces with our colleagues in language education and adjacent fields, as well as learners, stakeholders, and policy-makers.

The post-certainty condition also entails a present danger of fragmentation in the language education. This, too, suggests a need to examine the borderlines that traverse the profession, with a view to forging new connections wherever such synergy is sensible. Such connections might be forged with other curricular areas, with the broader aims of education (in the collection these are variously termed Global Education, Bildung, Global Citizenship, or Responsible Pedagogy), and with other aspects of life.

If the post-certainty condition is interpreted as an injunction that ‘now anything goes’, there is a caveat to this freedom. Language education is, as Sartre would put it, ‘condemned to be free’. The absence of external authority, in the form of theoretical principles, expert guidance, or the force of tradition, now means that the responsibility for decisions rests, more clearly, on the shoulders of language teaching professionals. As market forces and authoritarianism threaten to encroach on education, this is the time for language education to exercise such responsibility, and assert ownership of our professional existence. In this sense, the post-certainty condition is an invitation to the profession to cross the boundary into its adulthood.


You can read more about Challenging Boundaries in Language Education, as well as follow the progress of the publication, by clicking on the button below.

I’m also very keen to receive any feedback about the content of this post, so do please share your thoughts in the comments below. Also feel free to use the social sharing buttons to share this post with anyone who might be interested.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.